How democracies die

Natalia Antelava

 

Two developments over the past week offered a chilling glimpse into the future of disinformation. First, Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi was killed after the helicopter he was riding in crashed, triggering an explosion of misinformation posted by fake accounts across social media, some sporting blue “verified” check marks on X. Researchers say that it is not just the sheer volume of fake news that they find unprecedented, but it is also the helplessness they feel in combating it — platforms have largely dismantled the “trust and safety” teams that used to collaborate with journalists to fact-check and remove false information. “We’re now in the information environment those who have long reported on disinformation warned about,” said Jane Lytvynenko, one of my favorite journalists on the disinfo beat. “ai-generated manipulation is vast, moderation is sparse, and harmful junk is filling the knowledge gap left by crumbling news organizations.” 

Second, Scarlett Johansson’s dispute with OpenAI and its CEO Sam Altman this week offered another insight into our AI-driven future. The actor accused Altman of stealing her voice, after she explicitly refused to give his company permission to use it for their ChatGPT tool. Here’s her full statement via NPR’s tech reporter Bobby Allyn. Altman apologized and said he never intended the voice to resemble hers. Still, OpenAI pulled the voice, called “Sky,” after Johansson threatened to sue. Welcome to the future, where anyone can take your voice (and then say they didn’t mean it).

Information pollution — whether it is caused by humans or AI — is certainly a big reason behind our dwindling attention spans. Between former U.S. President Donald Trump’s hush money trial, Russia’s terrifying new offensive in Ukraine, events in the Middle East and everything else happening in the world, it’s not hard to miss the story about the possible disappearance of an entire democracy from the world map. The democracy is Georgia, where protesters have stepped out in force to demonstrate against what they believe is an existential threat to their freedoms and the country’s sovereignty after the government introduced a so-called foreign agents law, closely modeled after Russia’s own legislation. But even those who are understandably more consumed by problems closer to home may want to pay attention. Georgia could be a warning to the U.S. and a case study of how democracies die.

“We sang all the songs we could think of — ‘Bella Ciao,’ the European anthem, a bunch of Georgian songs. At one point I even sang the Marseillaise. The police told us to shut up. We kept singing, and cracked terrible jokes that this was a five-star digital detox.” Here’s one activist’s riveting, first-person account of the protests in Tbilisi.  

HOW DEMOCRACIES DIE: Lessons from Georgia

Georgia has become a front line in the battle against rising authoritarianism. With thousands protesting against the new “foreign agent” law, the country’s centuries-long struggle for freedom now faces a turning point. It also epitomizes the global demise of democracy and how geopolitics are rapidly changing. Although people are in the streets, Russia’s vision of the world has the official government backing of what was, until even last year, the U.S.’s closest ally in the strategic Caucasus region. 

According to historian Anne Applebaum, who was among 10 speakers at Coda’s “Georgia at the crossroads” discussion on Sunday, the events in the Caucasus should receive intense media attention precisely because they are happening in a democracy. We’ve grown accustomed to witnessing autocracies in places like Belarus, Russia or Egypt, which have all adopted and weaponized similar laws in the last few years, but Georgia has long been among the freest places east of Berlin. The story of its quiet decline into authoritarianism shows that autocrats no longer need tanks or coups d’etats to kill democracies. Today, the death of democracies happens through hijacking of democratic institutions, like elections, courts and media.  

“There is a threat that a second Trump term could devolve in that direction. We see some state governments in the United States have made moves in that direction. What we’re talking about is the creation of a one-party state and the way to get there is precisely through legal and sometimes very technocratic-sounding crackdowns like the one we’re seeing in Georgia,” Applebaum, who is from the U.S., said.

Georgian journalists Mariam Nikuradze and Nino Japiashvili said that even before the final adoption of the law, the government began an unprecedented campaign of violence and intimidation against journalists. Georgian academic Gia Japaridze described how the police beat him, causing serious injuries to his back and his head. 

Disinformation expert Peter Pomerantsev said the events in Georgia highlight a crucial distinction between the way Washington and Moscow treat geopolitical crises. 

“I live in Washington, D.C., a city that loves to see, especially under the current administration, all the problems as discreet little boxes. Here is the Gaza problem, and here is the China problem, and here is the Ukraine problem. And here is something happening in the Caucasus which we now annoyingly have to deal with,” Pomerantsev said.  

Moscow, he pointed out, takes a different approach. Seeing all these events as an interconnected, nuanced web of crises affords Moscow a clear advantage because everything that’s happening around the world is connected. “Autocrats borrow tactics from one another, they watch one another,” he said. If Bidzina Ivanishvili, the Georgian oligarch and founder of the ruling Georgian Dream party, “wins in Georgia despite having 80% of the population against him, you can guarantee that others will try the same.”

“The domino effect is real,” agreed Georgian activist Tamara Arveladze. “If Russia wins here, they will win elsewhere. Besides, call me biased, but I think Georgian people really deserve to win.” 

BACKGROUND 

The crisis in Georgia centers around a law that will force nongovernmental organizations that receive more than 20% of their funding from abroad to register with authorities as a foreign agent. The government says this will ensure transparency, but similar laws have been deployed to diminish activism and free media across the world, everywhere from Russia to Nicaragua. Under pressure from mass protests, the Georgian president has recently vetoed the legislation, but parliament can and is expected to overrule the veto. The U.S. is considering sanctions against the government. 

Georgia’s government representatives declined our invitation to join the discussion. But you can watch it in full here. And feel free to comment below the video to balance out the government trolls who seem to be on a mission.